Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Vol. 2 -  Chapter 7 - A Nomination

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LONDON, at this present writing, * [*July 11, 1865]  is no longer a sombre city. From eastern Tottenham to western Turnham Green, there is no such thing as a dead wall. There is almost no such thing as a blank space. If the bill-posters could only devise a scheme for placarding the sky with Vote for Smith, they would do it. As it is, Amphion-like, he has compelled, with his sweet piping (or by means of some other piper whom he has had to pay), the very milestones to declare his eligibility to sit in Parliament ; nay, he has set every tree in Westminster (and especially the juniper-tree) [-4-] dancing to his (Conservative) measures; and made the very lamp-posts vocal, or, at all events, instrumental to his cause. Nor is it Smith alone who has made all things metropolitan so gay and lively. There are half a hundred other candidates who have decked our public walls and hired our public steeds, and proclaimed that to the vacant seat 'tis he alone succeeds. Their individual confidence, considering that there is a contest, is something sublime; and they express it in the largest type, and in all the colours of the rainbow. One can scarcely procure a cab that does not present the appearance of a car of victory, gorgeous as a slashed doublet with scarlet and yellow and blue, and audacious with printed puffery, as though there were no such proverb as litera scripta manet - "your placard remains, though the election has gone against you." However, a modest man, like myself, has this set-off, that he can go from one end of London to the other without paying for his vehicle, by merely whispering, "Mr. So-and-so's committee-room," taking care to use the name of [-5-] the gentleman in whose parliamentary service the cab has been (very obviously) engaged.
    To one, indeed, who is not himself a candidate, a contested election in his own borough is in some respects advantageous, quite independent of any hard cash which he may reconcile it with his conscience to pocket in exchange for his vote. I am called upon, for instance, as an inhabitant of Westminster, by the Hon. Captain Grosvenor, who is pleasant and affable enough, and very much more so when I tell him that I am a Liberal; also by certain partisans of Mr. John Stuart Mill, the philosopher, whom, I confess, I should like to have tackled personally upon his views about population - for although I have considerably over the quantity of children permitted by his principles, I don't consider myself an abandoned character on that account; moreover, he would allow our wives the exercise of the franchise, whereas it is my opinion that they have quite sufficient influence in the house already; but his partisans, in the philosopher's absence, explain [-6-] everything to my complete satisfaction, and depart with the promise of my unconditional support. Finally, comes Mr. W. H. Smith, a very agreeable canvasser indeed, and we, too, part with genuine expressions of the most cordial good-will, for I have explained to him that, although a Liberal, I will not do violence to my feelings by voting against him.
    The simple fact is, although none of them know it, that I have not taken the trouble to get myself registered, and have therefore no vote to give under these circumstances, I have surely a right to consider myself totally unprejudiced, and to take to the hustings in Covent Garden, upon the nomination-day, whichever candidate's cab happens to come first, as his supporter and well-wisher. And this I accordingly do. As I pass rapidly along, the placarded wails make me almost giddy with colour; they give me, so to speak, "the chromatics." Now all is blue with me, now yellow, now pink. For a few moments a fashionable hearse, with eight mourning-coaches, which, won-[-7-]derful to say, the bill-posters have not taken advantage of, relieve my eyes, but immediately afterwards there come two omnibuses, each like a sunset in the tropics. Lord Fermoy, for Marylebone, in the colours of his native Erin; the "tried member," Mr. Harvey Lewis, in crimson; the "resident candidate," Mr. T. Chambers, in mauve. The bus proprietors are above consideration of party, and let their space to all advertisers, no matter what their - Yes, there goes Baron Rothschild in white and scarlet, and atop of a Citizen.* [*A placard, and not the Baron himself - a Citizen omnibus, not a free and independent elector - are here spoken of.]  Nay, the very water-carts demand (with tears) my vote and interest.
    At last I reach Covent Garden, where very little business, except electioneering, I should think, to judge by the enormous crowd, can be done to-day; even pine-apple is sacrificed to politics, and, so far as purchasers are concerned, the claims of shaddock to being the Forbidden Fruit are incontest-[-8-]able. A single exception is made in favour of cherries, with half a pound of which, everybody who had threepence in his pocket (albiet such capitalists are not numerous), seems to have provided himself. Being (by comparison) a person of property, I buy a whole pound of bigaroons, intending to reserve what I cannot eat as a present to my wife and family. By tremendous efforts, I manage to make my way through the press to one of the iron posts immediately in front of the hustings, but the stone step on which it stands is already in possession of four persons, and four more are holding on to these. It is a desirable coign of vantage, not only from the extra three inches of height it confers upon one's stature, but because it defends one from the "rushes" to which the Great Unwashed are so addicted in times of pressure. Now, to attain the post itself is as difficult as to be returned for Westminster; but by the exercise of great discretion, assisted by a naturally agreeable address, I manage to get on sufficiently good terms with one of the hangers-on [-9-] to permit me to offer him a shilling without offence; in return for this, he vacates, in my favour, his - well, his semi-foothold, and the privilege he has hitherto enjoyed of clinging with both hands to an individual connected with the manufacture of gas. Yes, if his métier, or metre, as I have heard it pronounced, was not gasfitting, then was his appearance, and still more the atmosphere that surrounded him as with a halo, deceptive in the extreme. From constant application to his profession, he seemed to have become himself Gaseous - gas oozed so from every pore. I am doubtful whether it did not circulate in his veins like blood, and I positively trembled whenever a pipe was lit in our neighbourhood, lest a spark should fall upon this gentleman, and make one great jet of him, and therefore of me.
    At first, all the gas in his body seemed to revolt at my succession to the place of one who seemed to have been his friend; but taking care to hold him firmly by tile throat with one hand, I offered him about a hundred cherries with the other, and [-10-] straightway he was appeased, and spoke me fair. "Don't you mind throttling of me," said he; "and don't you put your nice gloves on to that there post, for its black-greased." The good man warned me with reason, for the police, or somebody, had, with refined malignity, anointed - above a certain height - every pillar with engine-grease, to prevent the people swarming up them. But they swarmed everywhere else. Elevated as I now was, I could mark the sea of upturned faces paving both street and market, and watch, in comparative safety, the great human waves - the "rollers" of the roughs - come rushing in upon the hustings, there to be broken and repelled by a strong breakwater of police. There were women, with children in arms, amid this dangerous turmoil - women to whom, I should think, Mr. Mill himself would deny the possession of deliberative wisdom - as well as several poor cripples, who had certainly no need of their crutches there, and even one or two blind men come "to see the fun." Beside the "rushes" with which the rabble recreated themselves while wait-[-11-]ing for the candidates of their choice, infinite amusement was created by the throwing about of market-produce, such as cabbages and green stuff. An enormous packet of mint, I thus gratuitously received, was of infinite service, for, stuck between me and my new friend, it afforded me olfactory refreshment under circumstances of the greatest exigency.
    By the conversation of those immediately about me I was more astonished than edified. The general opinion seemed to be that it was Mr. E. T. Smith - so familiar to the public in connection with the "Adorable Menken" who was soliciting the suffrages of Westminster ; and that the name of the philosopher, his opponent, was Mr. Mills. A few were even so misguided as to imagine that "Scott, Champion Bill-poster," so conspicuously placarded over the hustings, referred to some fourth aspirant for senatorial honours, whose address had not yet been issued. There were enough of the better-informed, however, to maintain a brisk controversy upon all these topics. [-12-] I will not repeat the private scandals - for the most part monstrous and improbable enough - that were retailed concerning the rival candidates; but it struck me, as I listened with hair on end, that, with the exception of being placed in the witness-box, and cross-examined by counsel, no situation could be more trying, to any gentleman conscious of having committed a peccadillo, than that of standing for a constituency. Nor were these scandals told only behind their backs. No sooner did the Three for whom we waited take up their position with their friends at that bar of public opinion, the hustings, than the vox populi began its accusations. The Man of Fashion, the Philosopher, and the Man of Business (who, by- the-by, is also a thorough gentleman), were each greeted in turn with a piece of the popular mind. Not that they were at first individually recognised. On the contrary, the high-bailiff was for some time the man whom the mob was resolutely determined should know what they thought of him. Then the proposers and the seconders were mixed [-13-] up with their principals, and the principals with one another; so that Mr. John Stuart Mill was confidently pointed out to me as a young gentleman of fashion just come of age, and Captain Grosvenor as the great political thinker of the period.
    Unquestionably, the two Liberal candidates had least fair-play shewn to them. The mob would listen to no word from either. Captain Grosvenor "stuck to them," as my gasman observed (and I was quite in a position to appreciate the force of the expression), for more than half an hour, but only a select circle of reporters immediately beneath him could catch one syllable. Then came the turn of John Stuart Mill. It was the strangest sight to see that calm and philosophic face regarding the tossing throng. There was not a trace of contempt or even annoyance in his features, but certainly I never saw a man more out of place in a nomination-booth. The sense of humour is wanting in that deep-thinking and powerful mind, or else he was pained at the indecorous behaviour of [-14-] those to whom, without exception, he is ready to intrust the right of franchise. For my own part, who am not a philosopher, I make my mind up, as I listen in vain for his words of wisdom, never to go through such an ordeal, however "solicited" by committees, while unpaid parliaments exist; nay, think I, not for a peerage - unless there is a pension added - would I ask for such sweet voices as these. I feel like Caius of Corioli as I clasp my mint nearer to my nose.
    Mr. W. H. Smith has a little better fortune with these gentry. The Liberals are not so numerous as their rivals, and have to invent a new kind of groan - a prolonged low bellow; such as we hear in the Zoological Gardens at feeding time - in order to make up for their inferiority in volume of sound. In intervals of this agreeable monotone, two or three words of the Conservative candidate crop up, like hyphens. Altogether, I am not impressed with the desirability of Nominations; I almost think it a pity that they can't be made private - as it is proposed to do with executions. But then I [-15-] have not vet seen the show of hands. Thus is really very interesting, and, above all, it brings with it a divine silence. For a few moments I cease to wish that I had wool in my ears - an indispensable precaution, by-the-by, for every candidate. There is a winnowing of the air, too, produced by the waving of ten thousand human hands, of a hundred thousand fingers and thumbs. True to my promise of impartiality, and, more over, actuated by the knowledge, that if I let go of my gasman, I shall be instantly trampled upon, I do not hold up my own hand. But I examine the hands that are held up with all the interest of a Beamish. If I were that great chirognomist, I could doubtless tell by the "phalanges" of their thumbs whether the present company are Liberals or Conservatives; but lacking his peculiar powers, and not having heard the name given forth from the hustings, I know not in whose interest is this display of digits. Neither does my gasman know, although he has one hand up, and greatly desires to hold up the other, and would (as he assures me, [-16-] to my great alarm), "if it wasn't for fallin' ed over tip atop of a gent like me." I give him the rest of my cherries, and adjure him to withstand all temptation of that nature ; then once more I gaze around.
    Short hands, long hands, thin hands, strong hands, taper but tawny ones, hairy and brawny ones, most of them dirty ones, very few "shirty" ones, clothed in cotton or kid, or in thumb-stalls half hid, and a few even set off by jewel or ring - that grove of Palms was a most curious thing! It was an exercise, too, that pleased, for my neighbour was not the only one who added his mite to all the three great manual exhibitions; and how the Returning Officer, with the best intentions in the world, could make allowance for the fact, that some held two hands up, and some only one, is between himself and his conscience. The show of hands is of little consequence now, but at no very distant day it may become very important, and foreshadow the result of all elections, since each of those hands will hold a vote. Then, indeed, [-17-] shall predictions be made by palmistry, and may Heaven avert all evil omens! It is something to say, however, that in all that stormy meeting no hand was clenched in anger, but all was good-humour from first to last: a very different scene from that when Castlereagh's candidate for Westminster stood on the same hustings, and was pelted with bricks and stones.
    A goodly number of ladies smiled approval upon the scene from the neighbouring houses, and a bevy of three or four of them had the curious inscription of Plump for Smith stuck all round their window. They were plump undoubtedly; but the statement that they were all for Smith, struck this Home Correspondent as being (to say the least of it) invidious, and disappointing to the general public.